'It was an attempt to rescue our country': Andrew Higgins finds the leader of Russia's 1991 failed Communist coup unrepentant, and posing as a democrat

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The Independent Online
WITH accusations of coups and counter-coups the small change of Russia's rowdy political debate these days, a mild-mannered, middle-aged man sits in a red armchair, with brown slippers on, dispensing sober words of advice to would-be putschists: don't do it.

'I'd advise him to achieve a change in the policy of the government and the President by normal, constitutional means.' The calm voice of reason belongs to Gennady Yanayev, former Soviet vice-president, front man for the failed coup that brought tanks into the streets of Moscow in August 1991 and one of 12 die-hard Communists due to stand trial next month for high treason.

It is not that he regrets his own attempt to seize power from Mikhail Gorbachev, or that he has abandoned the hardline faith that prompted him to join the State Committee for the State of Emergency: 'I don't regret it at all. It was an attempt to rescue our country.'

His only misgiving is that he may have had a bit too much to drink when, on the evening of 18 August, he was called to the Kremlin by the head of the KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov, and agreed to sign a decree declaring himself acting head of state. When the summons came, he explains, he was outside Moscow drinking vodka at the dacha of an old friend: 'I knew absolutely nothing of what was going on . . . I could have said I was going away on holiday but this would have been irresponsible, a betrayal of the people.'

Today, Mr Yanayev and his co- conspirators pose as champions, not foes, of democracy. The change is one of tactics not convictions. The public mood, Mr Yanayev says, has shifted. 'When 80 or 90 per cent of the population begin each day thinking how they are going to survive, worrying about nothing more than basic biological needs, when the mafia is joined to state structures, when there is no security, when the army is being robbed and committing robbery itself, when our country's policy is decided by Washington, when a superpower has become the mistress of the West, what else can you expect?'

The theme is no different from the one he developed, with trembling hands and incoherent bluster, to the world's press on 19 August 1991, the first day of the coup: 'We have no alternative,' he said, 'but to take resolute action in order to stop the country from sliding towards disaster.'

Suddenly, everything has been turned on its head. According to a report in Izvestia newspaper, it is President Boris Yeltsin who is considering 'decisive action', urged on such a course by Russia's senior military commanders during a meeting last Wednesday in the Kremlin. And it is Mr Yanayev who speaks in favour of constitutional order: 'If President Yeltsin takes decisive action now it would be political suicide and the murder of the state.' The only way to end the crisis, he says, is an early election; emergency rule would bring 'bloodshed, even civil war and the destruction of Russia'.

Along with other hardliners, Mr Yanayev now vests his hopes in the Russian White House, the very scene of his own undoing in 1991. It is from here that Russia's standing parliament, the Supreme Soviet, and its chairman, Ruslan Khasbulatov, have launched a far more successful assault on President Yeltsin than the putschists' tanks in 1991.

'I favour a strong parliamentary system,' Mr Yanayev says. 'If President Yeltsin's power becomes bigger we face a vulgar dictatorship.'

In 1991, Mr Yanayev's claims to be acting on behalf of the people were a lie. No one came out to support him. Instead, thousands flocked to the White House to support Mr Yeltsin. Today, though, it is Mr Yeltsin's opponents who are in the streets. They got more than 20,000 for a march on Armed Forces Day last week and planned another rally yesterday to mark Women's Day.

Mr Yanayev's hands have stopped trembling. Instead, it is Mr Yeltsin who frets about what to do next, his authority battered by parliament, his prestige sapped by economic crisis. Opinion polls show a 20 per cent drop in the number of people who would go to the White House to defend President Yeltsin. But polls also show a vast majority still opposed to the coup.

It is a measure of just how messy and volatile Russia's political crisis has become that Mr Yanayev can pose as democracy's best friend. Released from prison in January, he is back in his old apartment in a block built for Communist Party leaders. The apartment next door, he says, is still owned by Eduard Shevardnadze, whom he accuses of stealing one of his rooms. 'We've got no dachas, no cars,' he says, complaining of poverty, persecution and phone taps. 'I was vice-president but get no pension, no salary. Our system is rather cruel.'

(Photograph omitted)